Peter Zellner's Design for Dignity Wrap-Up

"For half of the world's population, roughly three billion people around the world living on less than two dollars a day, an election is at best a means, not an end; a starting point, not deliverance. These people are looking less for an "electocracy" than for the basic elements that for most of us define a decent life--food, shelter, electricity, basic health care, education for their children, and the ability to make their way through life without having to endure corruption, violence, or arbitrary power." 

That was written in 2006 by President Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It seems that what Obama was describing is what our culture could or should model for rest of the world as a standard of civility and as a means of constructing the commons.  And yet, for a variety of reasons that have been amply outlined here today, we are simply not yet able to provide those basic elements for a shamefully large portion of our own citizenry here in the City of Angels.  Statistically, and statistics do matter, LA still can't provide a decent life for everyone.  We can't guarantee food, shelter, electricity, basic health care for 58,000 people living on the streets.

One might offer, and this may be an over statement, that many of problems that the have been wittingly and unsuspectingly inflicted on the globe by the West (through wars, flawed monetary policies, processes of colonization and decolonization) have come home to roost. What if the source of both our local problems on Skid Row and what is underway as far a way as in the Syrian refugee camps in Europe are part of the same logic? What if these situations have emerged as a result of the application of the same system of values: a system that reduces human suffering to a matter political expediency, economics and statistics? What if the act of moving bodies and, therefore lives, from one site the next as a matter of logistics and data management and not a question that goes to the heart of our humanity, of our ethos, of our way of life is the real problem to solve?

Do we agree to abandon our sisters and brothers, our daughters and mothers, sons and fathers, grandparents and cousins to oblivion? Or do we intend to turn the data around, to change both the macro and micro-economics towards equity and not only profit?

Statistics do matter: here are some, I'm sure you've heard them before:

Los Angeles County’s homeless population surged 23% over last year despite increased success by City and County in placing people in emergency housing. Again: 58000 human beings in some state of homelessness in Los Angeles in 2017. Let's put a face to that: that's everyone in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, combined.  Now let's do some math and assume that nothing gets done to solve homelessness.

Let's take the do nothing NIMBY approach and say that conservatively we add only another 20% annually to 2017 numbers in the next 5 years, exponentially.

How does that look?

Well, that's 70,000 people by 2019. That’s 84,000 people by 2021.  And shockingly that's 100000 people homeless in 2023.  100000 people by 2023. Imagine that.  That's a magic number.  100,000 humans on our streets would probably make us the global capital of homelessness, the premier global Luxury capital for living on the street. 100,000 would make LA number 1 by any standard across the nation in callousness and shortsightedness.  100,000 people is exactly 10 times what the 2016 ballot asked voters to authorize:  $1.2 billion in borrowing over 10 years to jump-start the construction of 10,000 apartment units with on-site social and clinical services for thousands of chronically homeless people.

Here are some more numbers:

At the state level we will need 1.8 million new homes by 2025 to meet population growth.  Locally the County needs almost 552,000 new units to meet affordable housing to satisfy demand.  And here is another new one: "A new analysis from personal finance technology company SmartAsset concludes that it takes $109,543 in annual income to afford an "average" ($2,556 per month) two-bedroom apartment in the city of Los Angeles. The housing data was culled from RentCafe. That kind of household income would place renters in the top 20 percent of earners nationally."

This may seem like a contemporary problem: that in a data driven society human suffering can be reduced to a statistical problem.  But the notion is not new: Horace tells us in Epistularum liber secundus (his Second Book of Letters) published in the year 14 BC.
* Nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati.  We are but numbers, born to consume resources.

As we trade is data-points to describe societal and human tragedies we may forget that it's possibly, perfectly, ok to say that the problems we are facing are also going to require statistical solution tied to an ethical imperative. It is possible to state the obvious: we need to turn the numbers around. That this can be done both incrementally: community by community, site by site, unit by unit and individual by individual seems reasonable.  How we frame this problem by keeping our eyes on the larger ethically problem, one which has to do with the equitable distribution of resources, is perhaps not so clear.

What do we mean by equitable distribution of resources: again per President Obama this means we need to provide those basic elements that define a decent life--again they are: “…food, shelter, electricity, basic health care, education for our children, and the ability to make our way through life without having to endure corruption, violence, or arbitrary power.”

How do we get there? How do we get there as a community of public representatives and officials, architects, developers, planners, educators, activists, designers and private citizens?   How do we transform our individual and collective outrage at the situation into effective and collective action?  How do we turn around the statistics?

I have a thought and it has to do with competitions.  Although it’s still unknown which city will host which year, the International Olympic Committee has designated Paris and Los Angeles as the next two Summer Olympics hosts in 2024 and 2028. Why can't we tie some of these metrics to these dates?   If we can house 10000 athletes for a summer why can't we house 50000 fellow citizens for a lifetime?

Would it be possible to imagine a 50% reduction in 2017 numbers by 2024?

Could 30,000 people be housed in 7 years? That’s only 5000 units a year.  Or would it be possible to imagine a 100% reduction in 2017 numbers by 2028?   Could 60,000 people be housed in 11 years? That is only 5250 units a year? These are abstractions until we take on the Mayors exhortation that those are 58,000 stories can be changed.  Why is it Pollyanna-like to imagine a more disruptive model for the entitlement, planning, design, financing and delivery process?  Why can't we imagine a similar framework for ourselves?  Why can't we leverage our institutions, our firms and our skills and time to create confront the significance of the problems we face? 

Why can't we imagine extinguishing homelessness in Los Angeles within our lifetimes, within the next decade? We can. Yes we can! The audacious aspiration now is not just to hope but to act and to act decisively.   To my fellow architects I say: spread the word, get more involved, do more with less, skip a yet another inane client driven revision once in a while and dedicate an a few hours to working on this problem. To my students I say: if this generation has failed, DO not be the next to fail. Take up the baton. Run with it! This will be your legacy if you succeed.

Our commitment to an agenda that will create more equity, share more resources and provide more, not less, for more people means we can't just continue trade in empathetic words like hope and compassion and inclusiveness.  Those are fine words, but we need to think and act through direct engagement, direct agency and we even need to contemplate the possibility of what the Latinos called revolution, "a full turn around."


Peter Zellner, July 2017

Last updated: 27-Jul-2017 01:16 PM
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